MOSCOW -- In a stunning twist, a well-known Russian journalist who Ukrainian authorities said was shot and killed in the capital of Kiev on Tuesday, showed up alive Wednesday, with Ukrainian security services saying they faked his death as part of an operation to thwart a real plot by Russian intelligence to murder him.
Arkady Babchenko, a celebrated war reporter who fled his home country last year amid a campaign of intimidation, was said to have been killed at his apartment building in Kiev on Tuesday night. But on Wednesday Babchenko appeared alive and well at a press conference, where it was announced it had all been a ruse carried out by Ukraine's domestic intelligence service, the SBU.
At the surreal event, the head of the SBU, Vasyl Hrytsak, said authorities had pretended Babchenko was dead in order to outwit a Russian plot to kill him.
Hrytsak then invited Babchenko to come into the room, prompting gasps from the journalists gathered there. Babchenko, wearing a dark hoodie and smiling slightly, thanked Ukrainian authorities for saving his life and apologized to his wife and colleagues for putting them through the ordeal.
“Olechka, I am sorry, but there were no options here,” Babchenko told his wife. “I’m sorry for making you live through this. I’ve buried my own friends and colleagues many times myself.”
Babchenko's killing had appeared very real. On Tuesday night, Ukrainian police described in detail how his wife had found him in a pool of blood, having been shot repeatedly in the back. He had died before reaching a hospital, they said. Police had behaved as though they were carrying out a real investigation, sealing off Babchenko's house with armed officers and releasing a sketch of an alleged suspect for the crime, a bearded man in a baseball cap.
Ukrainian officials had immediately pointed the blame for the supposed murder at Russian security services. Ukraine’s prime minister, Vladimir Groisman, said the “Russian totalitarian machine” was involved and police suggested Babchenko had been killed over his journalistic work.
The hoax was highly successful, convincing Babchenko's friends and colleagues as well as the international media. Russian media on Tuesday and Wednesday was filled with posthumous tributes for Babchenko, praising his talents and excoriating his murderers. Many journalists in Moscow had said they were preparing to attend his funeral. Britain's foreign minister, Boris Johnson, had tweeted that he was "appalled to see another vocal Russian journalist, Arkady Babchenko, murdered."
The revelation that Babchenko was still alive then prompted a vast wave of relief and also consternation. His colleagues at the ATR television station where he worked leapt out of their seats, applauding and crying when he appeared at the press conference that they had been watching live. Later, a video showed them speaking by phone with Babchenko, teasing him about all the condolences flowers they had collected for him. One of the journalists said he had visited the morgue to identify Babchenko and asked if it had been him that he saw there? Babchenko replied, yes, he had been there all night.
Journalists in Russia who had spent the day expressing their horror at his brutal murder now turned to astonished relief at his return. But some also voiced disapproval at what he had done, saying it played into the hands of the Kremlin that has regularly sought to paint assassinations of its opponents as staged provocations.
Andrei Soldatov, a well-known journalist who often writes critically of the Russian security services, wrote on Twitter: "Sorry, guys, to me, it's crossing a line big time. Babchenko is a journalist not a policeman, for Christ sake, and part of our job is trust. I'm glad he is alive, but he undermined even further the credibility of journalists and the media."
Alexey Kovalev, a Moscow-based writer who specializes in exposing Russian state propaganda, wrote on Twitter: "I'm sorry guys. Babchenko is a total ass and we're all dunces for falling for this."
He added in brackets: "I'm glad he's alive of course."
Anton Gerashchenko, an MP and adviser to Ukraine's interior ministry, in a Facebook post justified the deception, saying authorities had "had no other option" and cited Sherlock Holmes.
"Indeed, the hero of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, successfully used the method of staging his own death for the effective investigation of difficult and tangled investigations. However painful it was for his dear ones and Doctor Watson," Gerashchenko wrote.
At the news conference, Babchenko said Ukrainian security services learned of the plot to kill him two months ago. He was notified a month later.
"They showed me evidence and I understood that it was coming from Russia, probably from state security apparatus,” Babchenko explained. “They suggested I take part in a sting operation.”
Hrytsak alleged that Russian spies had paid $40,000 to a middleman in Ukraine, identified only as "G," to find a hitman. The middleman was tasked with recruiting a former Ukrainian volunteer fighter to carry out the murder and other "terrorist acts."
Hrytsak said the middleman had been arrested and showed a video in which a middle-aged balding man was grabbed by officers on the street and bundled into a van. Hrytsak said phone intercepts had revealed the man's contacts and prevented dozens of potential contract killings, claiming a list of targets included up to 30 names. He alleged that the Ukrainian suspect had been ordered to acquire an AK-47 rifle and "hundreds of kilos of explosives." The officials said the extraordinary ploy had been necessary because they had had to convince the would-be killers the murder had gone off successfully.
Before the revelations, the Kremlin had also taken the Ukrainian allegations seriously, with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denouncing them as part of an effort to stir up anti-Russian sentiments, directed in part by what he called Ukraine's "Western handlers." After the truth was revealed, the foreign ministry released a statement saying it was glad he was alive and calling the Ukrainian operation an "anti-Russian provocation."
That Babchenko's purported murder was so readily believed, however, also speaks to how common it is for journalists in Ukraine and Russia to be killed. Kiev recently has seen a string of assassinations, among them Kremlin critics.
In 2016, Pavel Sheremet, a renowned reporter and prominent critic of the Russian and Ukrainian governments, was killed by a bomb placed on his car in Kiev. In March 2017, Denis Voronenko, a former pro-Kremlin Russian MP who had defected to Ukraine, was gunned down in broad daylight in front of a hotel in the city's center.
In Russia, the staged murder recalled those of a number of other journalists killed during president Vladimir Putin's rule, that has been marked by periodic assassinations and attacks on high profile journalists and critics.
Babchenko, 41, is a highly-regarded war correspondent who had himself twice fought in the Russian military in Chechnya the 1990s. He became a scathing critic of the Kremlin, most recently attacking it over its 2014 seizure of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine and later its intervention in Syria.
In February 2017, Babchenko fled Russia after becoming the subject of a particularly intense campaign of public harassment, sparked by a Facebook post in which he criticized Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria and the indifference he felt toward a Russian army choir that had died in a plane crash. The post prompted a huge backlash, with Russian MPs saying he ought to be prosecuted and state media and pro-Kremlin activists mounting venomous attacks on him as “unpatriotic.”
Writing in an article in the U.K. newspaper the Guardian, Babchenko said the campaign “was so personal, so scary, that I was forced to flee.”
In Kiev, Babchenko has been working for the Crimean Tatar television station, ATR, which had been driven out of Crimea after Russia’s seizure of the peninsula.
Recently he had reported extensively and critically on the pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukraine’s government in the country’s east and who are backed by Moscow.
Before his reappearance, some of Babchenko's former colleagues suggested he could have been targeted by the rebels.
On Wednesday, reporters were still exploring the lengths that the Ukrainian operation had gone to. Gerashchenko said that a gruesome photo, which has been circulating on Ukrainian social media, apparently showing Babchenko's dead body face down in a pool of blood with three bullet holes in his back, had been staged too.
There were even indications that Babchenko had sought to lay the ground for his faked assassination by lacing his social media with posts that would look ominous after his "killing." In one posted on Facebook the day before his 'murder', he described how he had narrowly escaped death in 2014 when he was ordered off a military helicopter at the last minute. The helicopter was later shot down. He said he liked to celebrate that day, as "my second birthday."